This week we look at high-rise pork production, fast-growing chickens, misleading meat marketing and salad shortages.
But we start at the NFU conference – a politically charged event at which Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer received a warm welcome as he pledged that a Labour government would uphold UK food standards in future trade deals.
Starmer’s speech came in a week in which food security and sustainability were once again in the spotlight across national news channels. Yesterday the BBC reported that Tesco had become the latest supermarket to introduce limits on sales of certain fruit and vegetables. Extreme weather in Spain and North Africa are largely to blame.
However, fresh produce growers have been warning for some time that this winter could be hard (with high energy prices and low labour availability also major headaches). England is now reportedly one dry spell away from severe drought, which could present further crop casualties this year.
Defra, it seems, is deaf to all such risks. Environment secretary Thérèse Coffey said she “understood” the pressures farmers are under but was reportedly booed for suggesting that the UK egg sector was not subject to market failure. Avian flu has had an impact; but higher shelf prices have not been fairly distributed say farmers who are dealing with soaring feed and fuel costs.
Last summer, many producers were losing 40p per dozen, according to the British Free Range Producers Association (BFREPA). “The national flock is down to a low of 34 million as producers leave the industry, and avian influenza has left many others questioning whether it’s worth continuing,” noted Poultry News earlier this month.
In a scathing summary of Defra’s performance on food policy Shore Capital suggested it was “time for change” at the department. “The treatment of the food sector is not acceptable, it is time for necessary change… big change,” wrote research analyst Clive Black, as he highlighted the issues facing fresh produce growers, poultry producers and pig farmers. Markets are failing but the government is to a significant degree at fault, he suggested.
Warnings have been ignored. Indeed, this time last year 200,000 pigs were backed up on farms due to a lack of skilled butchers, with 40,000 animals culled and the meat thrown away. A situation Minette Batters, NFU president, called a “disgrace” and a “disaster” at the union’s 2022 conference.
Which brings us to a New York Times report this week on the hog high rises being built in China – a country that consumers half the world’s pig meat. Each floor in the 26-story factory farm “operates like a self-contained farm for the different stages of a young pig’s life”. “This is a milestone and not only for China, because I think multi-story farms will have an impact on the world,” said Yu Ping, executive director of Yu’s Design Institute, a company that designs pig farms.
What will animal welfare campaigners think? Defra is actually preparing for a judicial review case regarding the use of fast-growing chickens. The Humane League is arguing that the breeds are illegal under the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007, and the government is therefore unlawfully permitting their use by farmers. The RSPCA was this week granted permissions to provide evidence too. The hearing is scheduled for May 3rd and 4th.
Charities have been campaigning for food companies to commit to ending the use of fast-growing birds by asking them to sign up to the Better Chicken Commitment, which requires the use of slower growing breeds, more space, natural light and enrichment, less painful slaughter methods and third-party auditing. Burger King, KFC, Nando’s and Greggs are among the 350 or so companies in the UK and EU to have committed.
And finally, on the subject commitments, we leave you with the news that JBS’s one on climate has gone up in smoke. The meat behemoth has been ordered to “discontinue claims relating to its goal of achieving ‘net-zero’ emissions by 2040”. The BBB National Programs national advertising division (NAD), an independent body overseeing truthfulness of advertising in the US, concluded that JBS had started to think about its climate impact but there was no plan being implemented today in order to achieve its target. JBS is appealing the decision but campaigners see it as a major blow to meat company communications around net-zero. CEOs at firms attempting such “greenwash” should expect them to “keep blowing up [in their faces]”, noted Mighty Earth founder and CEO Glenn Hurowitz. Instead they must “actually work to reduce their footprint”, he added.